In between bowling, singing, banging on a tambourine and playing a video game, 4-year-old Hussein Hikmat was having too much fun to know he was in speech therapy with the goal of getting him ready for pre-school in a few weeks.
The affection Hussein has for his speech therapist Delaney Malley – he calls her “Laney” and his hospital-based Arabic interpreter Hanya Salem was evident as he laughed and performed for them during an hour of language enrichment disguised as play.
“We have accomplished so much since we began with Hussein in March,” said Delaney. “He hardly had any words and didn’t know what to do with common toys. He wasn’t even sitting up. Now, he shows that he understands new concepts so quickly. It’s all in there – we just need to pull it out.”
When Hussein was born in Iraq in 2012, his developmental delays were immediately evident and he has since been diagnosed with microcephaly, Hirschsprung disease, failure to thrive and global developmental delay among other conditions. He has a G-tube and has only recently been eating small amounts of food through the mouth and drinking with a straw.
Hussein also works with physical therapist Charles Miller, therapist Jane Haun for feeding, pediatric physiatrist Raffi Najarian, Akron Children’s neurology team and pediatric gastroenterologist Matthew Wyneski.
Hussein’s mother, Baneen Alfatlawee, became emotional when asked to reflect on how far her boy has come since he began receiving care at Akron Children’s 10 days before his 3rd birthday.
“When Hussein was born in Iraq, I was told to take him home and wait for him to die,” she said, speaking through Salem. “But now I see all he is doing and all the words he is learning and I just thank the Lord and thank Akron Children’s Hospital.”
Hussein’s conditions makes milestones easily achieved by other toddlers much more difficult for him. A simple thing such as keeping his mouth closed when not speaking must be taught.
“But his mind is so sharp,” said Delaney.
Salem is a key part of the team – the bridge between the English-speaking medical team and Hussein’s Arabic-speaking family. She travels with the family to all of Hussein’s appointments to make sure medical information is understood, including therapy strategies that should continue at home between appointments.
On his recent visit with Delaney, Hussein correctly identified nouns and action words like “baking,” and “sleeping” on flash cards. After practicing his “m” sound 15 times, he got to put toppings on a play pizza as a reward. His eyes – framed by long, dark lashes, sparkled as he sang along to “The Wheels on the Bus.”
And like other toddlers, he was mesmerized by the colorful, cartoon characters in a video game – this one featuring a “Mr. Potato Head” pirate to reinforce receptive language.
And soon Hussein will be meeting friends and learning so much more in a pre-school program offered by Akron Public Schools.
“When I first met him, he was so skinny and little and, at age 3, he was still in a baby carrier,” said Salem. “Sometimes I tear up with mom. It’s just amazing when we think about how far he has come in such a short time.”